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C.N.P Poetry 

  • Writer's pictureCathexis Northwest Press

The Fisherman; The Sailor; The Steam Shovel Operator

By: John Beck

The Fisherman

The nuns did

everything they could

to erase me, make me

more like the white boys.

When I pull

my nets, the whitefish

and lake trout teem

from the waves,

surprised by the brightness

and the dry breeze, the lack

of water to give them

breath. St. Andrew,

I learned from the nuns

about you, your brother Peter

and all the apostles

and Jesus. You cast

your nets in the sea

as I do in this

sweet sea,

Lake Michigan.


The baptismal font cleansed me

of original sin, but could not

make me whiter than

my father, my mother.

By treaty, I fish

these ancestral waters.

If the Bible

is a treaty

between God and me,

I will stand with all

his chosen people

bathed in eternal light.

For now, the fish

and I, we eye each other,

strangers breaking

the surface that joins us.

The Sailor

I live for this -

late watch, moonlight

over the Manitous,

clear August night of brilliance,

meteors, the Perseids come again.

All those streaks of light

are here for only a moment,

not capturable on any star chart.

We sail across the water,

downbound, tons of Minnesota ore

below, cruising above

the glacial scars

and the manmade wrecks

storm-brought to the lake bottom.

St. Brendan, you were Irish, like me,

and a sailor - St. Brendan the Navigator.

What would you make of these sweet seas,

so many miles from the rise and fall

of tides, the breaking rush of salt waves

and the breach of humpback whales?

I hope you would find kindred souls,

ships as large as your mythical islands,

the peace that resides here

beneath the turn of heaven’s night.

The Steam Shovel Operator

St. Barbara, you watch over

miners like me, but I wonder

whether I deserve

your love and grace.

I dig the earth each shift,

the bite of my shovel

enough to fill the largest

dump truck in a single pass.

These lands were tribal lands.

Native women gathered

wild rice while their men

fished the trout and hunted

the mink and whitetails.

I look at the sky

and think of the spirit gods

that the Anishinaabe knew

protected and replenished

these lakes and valleys.

St. Barbara, I fear that neither you,

nor those sky gods,

can bless my daily labors.

God healed your grievous wounds

every night after your torture was done;

He smote your executioner

with a lightning strike,

consuming him in heaven’s flame.

Please heal these streams

and fields, these hills

that we strip for iron

and forgive us

as we waste this land,

God’s holy wilderness.


John Peter Beck hails from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. He is a labor education professor at Michigan State University where he co-directs Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives, a program that focuses on workers culture and labor history. His poetry has been published by the Seattle Review, The Louisville Review, Passages North and Another Chicago Magazine among others.

Interview with the Poet:

Cathexis Northwest Press:

How long have you been writing poetry?

John Beck:

I have been writing poetry for over fifty years. My sophomore year English teacher read it all and told me to keep writing. The Vietnam War was going on and that spurred my interest in getting thoughts and feelings down on paper.


Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?


There have been so many. I was lucky enough during my college years at Michigan State and the University of Michigan to hear some of the greatest poetst: Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, William Stafford, Diane Wakoski, Maxine Kumin, Frank Bidart, and W.S. Merwin to name just a few. Robert Bly’s “The Teeth Mother Naked at Last” really showed me what poetry could do.


Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?


W.S. Merwin, Charles Simic, William Stafford, Phillip Levine, Jim Daniels, Susan Eisenberg, Judith Minty, Michael Delp, and Danny Rendleman.


Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?


I have always been a slow poet. Covid changed this when I started “The Work of Saints” series. Suddenly, I had time and inclination and the work flowed.


How do you decide the form for your poems? Do you start writing with a form in mind, or do you let the poem tell you what it will look like as you go?


I really begin to see the form emerge as I right. I vary between four, three and two stanza poems. I have always appreciated the power of breaths and pauses in the poems; line breaks and stanza breaks can help accentuate their power.


Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?


Keep writing, keep reading.


What is your editing process like?


I keep at it. I read my poems (and anything else I am writing) out loud and that often gives me the natural line and stanza breaks as well as uncovering clunky words and missed opportunities in the text.


When do you know that a poem is finished?


I think that it feels like a final puzzle piece has locked into place.


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